Illingworth, now 64, confessed in a recent interview that nobody at Lexus ever imagined they would be faced with a recall. "We thought, 'That's never going to happen,'" he said.
But right out of the box, Lexus was confronted with the need for a double-barreled recall: for a cruise-control defect that could cause an accident by making it harder to stop; plus a center high-mounted stop light that could overheat. The problems affected more than 8,000 LS 400s —all that had been sold.
At best, it was embarrassing. At worst, it was potentially lethal for the startup Lexus brand. "About two years before that, Audi had the unintended acceleration situation and mishandled it, and sales dropped 50 percent," Illingworth said.
Audi was brusque in blaming driver error for accidents, saying drivers mistakenly stepped on the accelerator instead of the brakes. The backlash from Audi's initial reaction and a devastating TV segment on "60 Minutes" nearly drove the brand out of the United States.
With the Audi disaster in mind, Illingworth said, he knew it was time to put up or shut up.
Illingworth had written the "Lexus Covenant," which was signed by every dealer. The covenant says in part that Lexus cars will be "the finest ever built." It goes on to say, "Lexus will treat each customer as we would a guest in our home."
"If that covenant means anything, we do the right thing," Illingworth said.
Doing the right thing, Lexus-style, meant picking up the cars, replacing the appropriate parts, filling the cars with gasoline, washing them and taking them back again, in a hurry.
It took an all-out, all-hands effort, recalls Steve Haag, who was part of the Lexus field force at the time.
"I was working in Chicago, in the Central Region office. I'm not involved in service; there were people that were more technically involved than I was. But they called everybody in, everybody in the field organization ... and mobilized everybody," he says. Haag, 48, is now corporate manager of private distributors.